The Profession of Anthropology
Biological and physical anthropologists tend to study environmental, biological, and social processes that shape us as a species. They integrate research from primatology, anatomy, osteology, genetics, molecular biology, evolutionary and population biology, ecology, demography, nutrition, medicine, pathology, and forensics.
Sociocultural anthropologists focus on our communities, social behaviors, and belief systems. They investigate businesses, social networks, migration, gender, sexuality, economics, medicine, architecture, families, civil institutions, governments, policies, law, educational systems, ideologies, knowledge systems, artistic expression, and many other topics related to the human endeavor.
Linguist anthropologists concentrate on how we communicate: human anatomy, cognition, language formation and change, language history and development, social relationships, expression, symbolism, and meaning.
Archaeologists specialize in the ways we interact physically with our environment and cultural materials. Geology, surveying, materials science, demography, osteology, human biology, ecology, social organization, and other specialties come into play as archaeologists try to reveal our past through physical remains.
Practicing anthropologists typically work outside the academy, or at minimum the majority of their time is not devoted to teaching classes. They often work as employees or consultants, in tandem with community leaders, non-profit institutions, companies, governments and other stakeholders, to understand, create, implement, and evaluate programs, products, services, policies, laws, and organizations.
Let’s look more deeply at what practicing and applied anthropologists actually do. It sounds simple enough, but in fact it is a challenge to try to encapsulate the breadth of practice into a short summary. Suffice it to say you will find anthropologists in both anticipated and surprising occupations, all using anthropological tools and perspectives to conduct their work in relevant and meaningful ways.
Here are some titles that you might expect anthropologists to use: program director, project manager, evaluator, researcher, analyst, educator, archivist. And here are additional and more specialized titles that anthropologists hold: ADA Compliance Specialist, Archaeofaunal Analyst, Artist, Autopsy Tech, Community Organizer, Environmental Compliance Specialist, Environmental Compliance Specialist, Fisheries Biologist, Flaked Stone Analyst, Grants Manager, Green Procurement Specialist, Immigration Consultant, Intelligence Analyst, Librarian, Mom, Nurse Practitioner, Operations Director, Real Estate Agent, Restaurant Worker, Senior Staff Osteologist, Tribal Preservation Program Chief, Supervisor of Prevention Services, Tribal Liaison, Sales/Marketing Coordinator, Staff Development Coordinator.
From the varied job titles above, you can see that we turn up in places you might not expect to find us, including the fields of agriculture, computer science, law enforcement forensics, and more, as we work to understand and help people around the world.
Practicing and applied anthropologists often work in academic institutions (although not necessarily as tenure-track faculty), nonprofit organizations, government (federal, state, local, and tribal), in museums and for research organizations, and also in K-12 education or with international or nongovernmental organizations. You will also find us working in the private sector, for corporations or smaller firms, or with our businesses or working as contractors/consultants.
Our profession is dynamic and constantly evolving as professional anthropologists find work in increasingly diverse occupations. NAPA members use anthropological training to address current issues related to:
- Public health
- International development
- Organizational and community development
- Information technology systems
- Social justice
- Law and law enforcement
- Mass media and communications
- Environmental management
- The Arts
- And the list goes on…
Areas of Practice
Practicing anthropologists work in many industries and areas, conducting research to inform decision-makers, or making decisions as part of a team to improve programs and projects. Some of these sectors include:
- Agricultural Development
- Business – Product Design, Project Management, Program Management, Research and Development
- Computer Science – Database Design and Development, Software Design and Development, User
- Community Development
- Cultural Resource Management
- Education and Training
- Environment – Management, Policy
- Government – Tribal, Local/State/Federal, International
- Health and Human Services
- Information Technology – Human Factors Engineering, Localization and Globalization, Network Design and Administration
- Law Enforcement – Forensics
- Legal Practices
- Medical – Health Care, Public Health
- Museums – Curation, Project and Program Management
- Organizational Management
- Nonprofit – Grant Writing, Management, Policy
- User Experience – Product Design, Client Satisfaction
Practitioner anthropologists apply a number of skills in their work. This includes qualitative research skills in general, such as observation, interviews, and other ethnographic methods, but also a range of quantitative and other research skills in general, such as various survey techniques, archival research/data mining, and software-based statistical packages (e.g., SPSS, SAS). In addition, specialized archaeology field methods include geographic information systems (GIS) and archaeology lab methods. Straddling both archaeology and cultural anthropology, you will find cultural resource managers and historic preservationists.
In addition, a 2009 survey garnered some specific data on practitioners and their roles. To get a bit more clarity on what to do with a career in anthropology, look through the resources on this website, and explore the practitioner interviews (view videos, listen to podcasts, and read interviews with practicing anthropologists to understand better what they do, and how they got there). You will also find tips on how to find jobs and what they are about, what kind of jobs are currently being advertised with those having anthropological skills, and how to be matched with a mentor who can help advise you along the way.